Workplace Safety Trumps Religious Observances in Quebec

The Quebec Court of Appeal has ruled against Sikh truck drivers who sought an exemption from wearing personal protective equipment – a helmet – as required by their employers because their religion requires them to wear a turban.

The Court ruled that workplace safety must take precedence over temporary impacts on freedom of religion.

According to Wikipedia, wearing a Sikh dastaar, or turban, is mandatory for all Sikh men. Among the Sikhs, the dastaar is an article of faith that represents honour, self-respect, courage, spirituality, and piety (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dastar).

Quick facts

In 2016, three Sikh truck drivers sought to be exempted from their company’s policy for restricting access to the work site to those who are not wearing the required personal protective equipment, in this case a helmet. The drivers claimed that wearing the safety helmet while working at the Port of Montreal conflicted with the religious freedoms associated with their turbans afforded to them by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

The employers in this case own three different private trucking companies, the Montreal Gateway Terminals Partnership, the Empire Stevedoring Co. Ltd., and the Termont Terminals Inc., and they each adopted a workplace policy that made it mandatory for employees to wear helmets while on the job to protect the workers health and safety while performing their jobs. A helmet is required by health and safety legislation as a personal protective equipment to prevent worker injury in Quebec. In addition, lawyers representing the three companies said the policy was put in place after the Criminal Code introduced Section 217.1 in 2004 that established a legal duty for all persons “directing the work of others” to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of workers and the public.

The lawyers also clarified that the drivers are allowed to wear their religious headgear in the truck. Technically, the policy only applies during the time the drivers must exit their vehicles to deliver and receive containers at the worksite.

The application for exemption was refused in 2016 by Superior Court Justice Andre Prévost, saying that, under the Criminal Code and health and safety legislation, employers have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of their workers. While the judge admitted the policy does affect the drivers’ ability to exercise their religion, he concluded that the tangible work risks at the site provided a valid justification for these restrictions.

The drivers appealed all the way to the highest court in the province, claiming that Prévost erred by refusing to apply the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to their case. The drivers argued the Charters do apply to the company’s workplace policy, and the judge was wrong in saying that it did not.

Decision from the Court of Appeal

The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled against the drivers and stated “the judge committed no error when he concluded that the litigation only concerns private company policy.”

Furthermore, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms did not apply in the case because the helmet policy was dictated by a company in the private sector and not the state. The Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms did apply, however the court found that the infringement of freedom of religion was justified by the helmet’s safety benefits.

The court also highlighted that, to perform their duties, the drivers are only required to step out of their vehicles for five to 10 minutes, and they are still permitted to wear their turbans under their safety helmets.

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